Lithium (Li) is recovered from both mineral deposits, largely from the mineral spodumene (Li2O.Al2O3.4SiO2) and from salts, largely from lithium-rich brines in salt lakes. Lithium has a range of uses in both chemical and technical applications.
Lithium in various forms, such as lithium carbonate, lithium hydroxide, lithium chloride, is used in lubricant greases, pharmaceuticals, catalysts, air treatment and particularly in batteries—both non-rechargeable (primary) lithium batteries and rechargeable (secondary) Li-ion batteries. Demand for lithium has expanded significantly in recent years as a result of its increasing use in rechargeable batteries for portable electronic devices, such as mobile phones, computers and rechargeable power tools, as well as in batteries and electric motors for electric bikes, hybrid and electric passenger cars, and other vehicles.The major technical application for lithium is for production of ceramics and glasses, including heat-resistant glass and ceramics such as those used in oven wear and cook tops. It is also used in fluxes and glazes. Lithium is also used in alloys to increase strength to weight ratios, taking advantage of lithium’s strength and light weight (low-density) characteristics. Aluminium-lithium alloys, for example, are used in the aerospace and motorsport industries.
Australia’s Economic Demonstrated Resources (EDR) of lithium in 2012 were estimated to be 1538 kilotonnes (kt), which represents a 50% increase on the 1006 kt of lithium in 2011. All EDR occur within hard rock pegmatite deposits. Most of Australia’s lithium resources are in the Greenbushes Lithium Operations spodumene deposit, 250 kilometres (km) south of Perth in Western Australia (WA), and the bulk of the growth in Australia’s EDR of lithium reflect a large increase of resources at this deposit. The Greenbushes Lithium Operations is the world’s largest and highest grade spodumene deposit. Other EDR of lithium occur at Mount Marion about 40km southwest of Kalgoorlie, Mount Cattlin, about 2km north of Ravensthorpe, and Pilgangoora, 120km south of Port Hedland, all in WA. Resources at Mount Marion amount to about 45 kt while resources at the Mount Cattlin are around 70 kt and resources at the Pilgangoora deposit total approximately 100 kt.
In 2012, Subeconomic Resources of lithium, all in the submarginal category and all in WA, total less than one kilotonne.Inferred Resources of lithium total about 139 kt, a slight increase from the 131 kt in 2011. All the Inferred Resources are associated with the Greenbushes, Mount Cattlin, Mount Marion and Pilgangoora pegmatite deposits, except for 4 kt in the Narraburra rare earth and rare metals project, 12 kilometres northeast of Temora in New South Wales.
All of Australia’s EDR of lithium is accessible.
Joint Ore Reserve Committee (JORC) Code reserves comprise total lithium in Proved and Probable Ore Reserves as defined in the JORC Code. In 2012, JORC code reserves of 854 kt accounted for about 55% of Australia’s Accessible Economic Demonstrated Resources (AEDR). This compares with JORC Code reserves of 506 kt in 2011. At Australia’s 2012 rate of spodumene production, lithium reserves in the JORC Code categories are adequate for more than 65 years.
There are only a few companies exploring for lithium, mainly in WA, but no statistics are available on exploration expenditure.
Production figures based on company reports indicate 2012 production of spodumene concentrates was about 452 kt, an increase of approximately 7% on 2011. Assuming a 6% Li2O grade (true value between 4.8% and 7.5%), the 2012 production equates to about 12.7 kt of contained lithium.
According to estimates by the United States Geological Survey (USGS), which have been modified by Geoscience Australia for Australia’s resources, world lithium resources in 2012 totalled about 13 538 kt. The resource data does not include Canada. Chile holds approximately 7500 kt, or about 56% of the total world resources, followed by China with 3500 kt (about 26%), Australia with 1538 kt (11.4%), and Argentina with 850 kt (6.3%).
Lithium resources occur in two distinct categories, lithium minerals and lithium-rich brines. Canada, China and Australia have significant resources of lithium minerals, while lithium brine is produced predominantly in Chile, followed by Argentina, China and the USA. Lithium brines are the dominant feedstock for lithium carbonate production. All Australia’s current resources and production are from lithium minerals.World production in 2012 was estimated by the USGS to be 37 kt of contained lithium, excluding the USA production for commercial reasons. Chile produced about 13 kt (35.4%) to remain the world’s largest producer in 2012 followed closely by Australia (34.6%), China (16.4%) and Argentina (7.4%).
According to various industries reports, the estimated global demand for lithium in 2012 was expected to be between 137 000 and 150 000 tonnes of lithium carbonate equivalent (LCE), approximately 10% more than the previous year. The primary growth in demand was in lithium batteries, glass and ceramics segments. Within the lithium battery sector growth areas were in batteries for laptops, mobile phones and other personal electronic devices. Demand for lithium in the electric vehicles segment is forecast to grow exponentially from 2014 onwards as major global car manufacturers launch new models to secure market share. The subsidies provided by some governments, including various legislations on fuel emissions to promote less reliance on fossil fuels and a cleaner environment, is expected to encourage consumers to gradually move into hybrid, plugin hybrid or fully electric vehicles.
In Australia, Talison Lithium Limited (Talison), the world’s largest producer of hard-rock spodumene, produces two categories of lithium concentrates at the Greenbushes Lithium Operations in WA:
In early 2011, Talison announced an expansion to 740 000 tonnes per annum (tpa) lithium concentrate at the Greenbushes Lithium Operations involving a new purpose built chemical-grade production facility at a cost of about $70 million. This plant was commissioned in mid-2012 and officially opened in August 2012. Talison is also evaluating the construction of a 20 000 tpa lithium-carbonate conversion plant in Australia to produce battery-grade lithium carbonate from lithium concentrates produced at their Greenbushes operations. Preliminary studies into the proposed plant were completed in 2011 with Kwinana, WA, chosen as the preferred location. In September 2012, the company reported a large increase in combined Measured and Indicated Resources of 118.4 million tonnes (Mt) grading 2.4% Li2O, containing Proven and Probable lithium reserves of 61.5 Mt grading 2.8% Li2O. In early 2013, Talison was acquired by the Chinese privately-owned company Chengdu Tianqi Industry (Group) Co Ltd (Tianqi) through its Australian incorporated, wholly-owned subsidiary, Windfield Holdings Pty Ltd. Tianqi’s subsidiaries include Sichuan Tianqi Lithium Industries, the world’s largest lithium chemical producer from spodumene, and Sichuan Tianqi Industry Co Ltd, which distributes technical grade lithium concentrates and is the sole distributor for Talison’s technical grade lithium concentrate in China. The successful action by Tianqi followed the termination in late 2012 of a prior takeover agreement Talison had entered in August 2012 with Rockwood Holdings, a US-based specialty chemicals and advanced materials company, which includes Rookwood Lithium, a lithium producer from brines at operations in Chile and in Nevada (USA).
In March 2013, Galaxy Resources Limited (Galaxy) signed a three year agreement with Talison Ltd (Talison) for supply of spodumene feedstock to Galaxy’s wholly-owned Lithium Carbonate Plant in the Jiangsu Province in China. Under this agreement, from July 2013, Galaxy will purchase spodumene feedstock from Talison, rather than producing the feedstock itself from its Mount Cattlin lithium-tantalum mine (hard-rock spodumene) near Ravensthorpe in WA. Operations, which were temporarily stopped at Mount Cattlin in July 2012 (the mine had a year’s supply of spodumene feedstock stockpiled for Jiangsu operations), will remain suspended until further notice. In February 2011, the Mount Cattlin deposit had a reported JORC Code compliant resource of 18 188 kt at an average grade of 1.08% Li2O and 156 grams per tonne (g/t) tantalum pentoxide (Ta2O5), containing an estimated 197 kt of Li2O and 2845 tonnes of Ta2O5, based on a cut-off grade of 0.4% Li2O. These figures include (at December 2011) JORC Code compliant Proven Reserves of 2803 kt at 1.09% Li2O and 136 g/t Ta2O5 and Probable Reserves of 7933 kt at 1.03% Li2O and 150 g/t Ta2O5. Prior to suspending operations, the Mount Cattlin deposit had mined 616 714 tonnes of ore grading 1.11% Li2O for 63 863 tonnes of spodumene grading 6.18% Li2O. The company had also produced 464 tonnes of tantalum concentrate grading 3.3% contained Ta2O5. In full production, the Mount Cattlin project will produce 137 000 tpa of 6% Li2O spodumene concentrate and about 25 tonnes of tantalite concentrate for an expected mine life of 16 years. The company has commenced preliminary equipment design to reduce mica content in the spodumene end-product and to produce a saleable mica by-product. It has shipped a 10 tonne trial shipment of mica from its Mount Cattlin operation.
Reed Industrial Minerals Pty Ltd which is 70% owned by Reed Resources Ltd (Reed) and 30% by Mineral Resources Limited (Mineral Resources), continue to advance the Mount Marion lithium project, 40km southwest of Kalgoorlie, WA. Both companies have received approval for the final mining proposal from the Western Australian Department of Mines and Petroleum, allowing construction of the minerals processing plant at Mount Marion. Mine production is expected at an initial rate of 200 000 tpa of 6% Li2O chemical grade spodumene concentrate, containing about 12 000 tonnes of Li2O. It is envisaged that the mining will also produce 60 000 tpa of muscovite and 30 tpa of tantalite concentrate. The joint venture partners are evaluating the economics of producing by-product high-grade mica and have been in discussions with distributors and users of mica products. The Mount Marion deposit consists of a series of shallow dipping, parallel sheets of spodumene-bearing pegmatites within mafic-ultramafic volcanic rocks. The pegmatite sheets are more than 20 metres thick. The deposit has total contained resources of 14 867 kt at 1.3% Li2O for a contained Li2O resource of 200.5 kt, of which 48% are in Measured Resources (13.6%) or Indicated Resources (33%). The decision on when mining operations will commence at Mount Marion is under review, having been delayed because of economic and financial market conditions, and the decision by Talison Lithium to significantly expand lithium production at the nearby Greenbushes Lithium Operations mine. As part of the 30% ownership agreement, project development at the Mount Marion project is being fully funded by Mineral Resources. Proof of technology test work is underway, looking at the production of battery-grade lithium carbonate (Li2CO3) and a high purity lithium hydroxide product from spodumene concentrates produced at the Mount Marion lithium deposit. This is expected to be completed in the second half of 2013.Altura Mining Ltd (Altura) completed a positive project scoping study in late 2012 of its wholly owned Pilgangoora Lithium project, 120km south of Port Hedland in the Pilbara region of WA. At October 2012, the project had total resources of 25 157 kt at 1.23% Li2O for 310 kt of contained Li2O, of which 17 288 kt at 1.25% Li2O for 219 kt of Li2O are Indicated Resources. Lithium at Pilgangoora is within spodumene in 12 outcropping to shallow spodumene-bearing pegmatites. Scoping study parameters included 830 000 tpa of ore mined producing up to 150 000 tpa of spodumene concentrate at greater than 6.0% Li2O. Altura undertook diamond drilling in the first half of 2013 for secondary process testing. Additional drilling is focussing on resource extension. The company is also undertaking a pre-feasibility study and is actively seeking an off-take partner to progress development of the Pilgangoora project. Altura commenced exploratory drilling in April 2013 to test lithium, tin and tantalum for potential of pegmatites at its Smithfield project, about 260km south of Perth and approximately 15 km south to Talison’s Greenbushes Lithium Operations mine.